How Do Nukes in Ukraine Impact the United States?
The idea of nukes in Ukraine has generated a lot of discussion about what that would mean. And with good reason. Nuclear weapons aren't like a bullet coming out of a gun. The effects of nukes tend to stick around. While the average American is most certainly concerned about this, they're asking this: "How does a nuke in Ukraine impact the United States?"
Will Russia use nuclear weapons? Could nuclear fallout from Kiev reach America? And would Americans have to shelter in place?
Let's dive deeply into these questions to see if we can't find answers.
Table of Contents
What Kind of Nukes Does Russia Have?
What Type of Nukes Would Russia Likely Use?
Where Would Russia Likely Drop Nukes in Ukraine?
Could Radioactive Fallout from Nukes in Ukraine Reach the United States?
What Can You Do to Prepare?
Frequently Asked Questions
What Kind of Nukes Does Russia Have?
If we want to answer any of these questions, we first have to understand a bit about Russia's various nuclear weapons. While this is not a comprehensive list of every type of nuke available to them and the means of deployment, this will give us a good bird's eye view of some of the major players.
Russian Sea-Based Nuclear Weapons
While Russia can launch nukes from various naval vessels, perhaps the most concerning of these nukes, the Poseidon nuclear torpedo, is only launched via submarine (mainly via the Belgorod, though there are three other Poseidon-capable Russian submarines in the works). The Poseidon travels at 80mph, can quickly destroy an entire enemy fleet, and creates a radioactive tsunami that renders coastal towns uninhabitable.
The Belgorod. Image courtesy of FriskyAnYatos at Wikimedia Commons.
It utilizes a two-megaton warhead, making for a weapon that is 150x more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima.
Kalibr missiles are another nuclear-capable, sea-based option for Russia. These cruise missiles have an effective range of 932-1553 miles.
A conventional Kalibr missile hitting Ukraine.
Russian Air-Based Nuclear Weapons
The Tu-22M3 Intermediate-Range Bomber, the Tu-160, Tu-95, Il-78, the Su-24M Fighter-Bomber, the Su-34 Fighter-Bomber, and the MiG-31K seem to be Russia's main nuclear-capable airplanes. There may be others, but these, at least, are the predominant ones.
One of Russia's air-based nukes is the Kinzhal missile. These hypersonic missiles have a 1058-pound payload, are 33x more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, have an erratic flight trajectory, a 932-1242 mile range, and are designed with the idea of destroying aircraft carriers, Aegis cruisers and the like in mind. The MiG-31K is known for carrying these.
A Kinzhal missile. Image courtesy of Boevaya mashina at Wikimedia Commons.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
It’s worth noting that Belarusian Su-25 warplanes have been outfitted by the Russians to accommodate nuclear weapons
Some Russian Ground-Based Nuclear Weapons
Iskander-M Missile Systems
These land-based, mobile platforms make it incredibly difficult to keep track of everywhere that Russia has nukes. They also allow Russia to bring numerous tactical nukes to just about anywhere.
Image courtesy of Boevaya mashina at Wikimedia Commons.
Suppose there is to be a tactical nuclear weapon used in the Russo-Ukrainian War. In that case, there is a very high chance that it will come from an Iskander-M missile system due to the prevalence of these units throughout the theater of war. These systems have a 310-mile range, can carry a nuke up to 700kg, can be outfitted with maneuverable re-entry vehicle systems (MaRV), can fire EMP warheads, and an utilize decoys to thwart missile defense systems.
We know that there are some in Kaliningrad at the moment, where they are within easy reach of many of Europe, including Sweden and Finland, non-NATO members of Scandinavia. Some of these systems were also spotted a few months ago on a train headed for the Kherson region. Of course, that was a few months ago, and these things moved. Where they are now is anybody's guess.
Red circles are estimated range of Iskander-M ballistic missile systems. Green circles are Kalibr missile ranges. Image courtesy of Viktor anyakin at Wikimedia Commons.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
Like the Belarusian nuclear-capable planes, they now have Russian-supplied nuclear-capable Iskander-M systems in place as of December 2022. We don't know how many they have or where they are located. This gives Belarus two means of launching nuclear weapons against NATO or Ukraine.
Russia has one of these systems ready to go in Kaluga with a yield that is twelve times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. With a range of 12000 km and a payload of 500 kilotons, this massive nuke can strike anywhere on the planet once it is in the air.
Yars missiles have three MIRV warheads attached, and it's believed there are roughly 135 Yars systems that Russia has built.
Also known as the "Satan," these are currently being replaced by RS-28 Satan 2 missiles. They are silo-launched missiles with either a 20-megaton warhead or ten 550-750 megaton MIRV warheads. The range is roughly 7,000 miles.
Image courtesy of Michael at Wikimedia Commons.
Dubbed the "Satan 2," this missile is currently unstoppable by any nation on the planet once it is launched. A Mach-10 ICBM, the Satan 2 is a hypersonic missile capable of being fired from silos throughout Russia and hitting just about anywhere in Europe within 2+ minutes. It's often equipped with ten 750-kiloton MIRV warheads and has a range of at least 10,000 miles.
What Type of Nukes Would Russia Likely Use?
There's no saying with 100% certainty exactly what type of Russian nukes in Ukraine would be used, but with our above knowledge of some of the types of nuclear weapons Russia possesses, here are how things could pan out.
Tactical Nuclear Weapons
A tactical nuke has a smaller payload than other nukes, generally classified as anything 100 kilotons or less, and anything larger than 100 kilotons is considered a strategic nuke. For comparison, Hiroshima was a 15-kiloton payload, and it's currently believed that Russia possesses somewhere in the ballpark of 2000 tactical nukes.
The Nagasaki explosion. Larger than Hiroshima, but at 22 kilotons, a tactical nuke by today's standards.
One possible response for a low-yield nuclear weapon that Russia could resort to would be an Iskander-M missile system. As noted above, these mobile platforms are currently scattered throughout Ukraine, and their positions are widely a mystery. We saw some videos in October 2022 of these systems being taken into the Kherson region, but it's been a long time since then. Being relatively easy to hide, these could be anywhere.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons outnumber both America's and NATO’s tactical nuclear weapons by a 10:1 ratio.
A Hypersonic Missile or Nuclear Torpedo
A Sarmat 2 or a Poseidon torpedo are each high-yield nuclear weapons. They would both cause massive amounts of devastation and, due to their yield, would create a lot of fallout compared to a smaller tactical nuke. A Poseidon torpedo would likely render a coastal port uninhabitable for years to come as well.
Russia could most certainly receive a propaganda benefit from utilizing an absolutely massive new-era nuke that would enable them to point to the rest of the world and say, "See? Look what we can do. We're unstoppable. Do you really want to mess with us? We could do this to you too."
However, part of the problem with using a weapon of this size is the same reason that an airburst detonation would make more sense than a ground detonation.
Any ground detonation would render much of what Russia wants to take unusable land for a long time. A large part of the value of Ukraine is its fields and soil. A bank robber doesn't burn down a bank to get to the money inside. Instead, he finds ways to get to the money that doesn't destroy it. Why would Russia render great swaths of land they're bleeding over unusable? Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, and it has fantastic farms because of the tremendous soil. Russia would not want to destroy this.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Image courtesy of ArticCynda at Wikimedia Commons.
The other catch with one of these larger yield nukes is that they could potentially bring a lot of radiation into Russia, and that would be a public relations nightmare. While Russia is most certainly not against killing its own people (read The Gulag Archipelago), in the modern world, injuring their own people in this way would give zero plausible deniability. War requires the support of a populace, and radiation blowing into Russia from Ukraine would not aid in this goal.
This is one of the merits of sticking with low-yield, tactical nuclear weapons.
If launched from a system in Belarus and air detonated, this type of nuke would follow the Russian war doctrine of "escalate to de-escalate," showing that nukes are not off the table in this engagement, not lace a considerable chunk of Ukraine with radiation, completely annihilate an enemy stronghold, and give The Kremlin at least some level of plausible deniability ("Belarus did it! Not us!").
Of course, this is all speculation, but it's food for thought.
Where Would Russia Likely Drop Nukes in Ukraine?
We can really only speculate here, but here are five potential targets.
The Western Side of Ukraine
A tactical nuclear weapon dropped on the far west side of Ukraine wouldn't send much radiation into Russia. Given the wind pattern, it would assist Russia in "corralling" Ukrainian troops into concentrated regions. You can use a nuke simulator to understand how the radiation would assist.
The wind in Ukraine tends to blow to the northwest. So if Russia were to nuke Ternopl, the radiation would blow up to the northwestern corner of Ukraine, making resupply from NATO perilous and forcing Ukrainian soldiers to move closer to Russian troops.
Image courtesy of Amitchell125 at Wikimedia Commons.
In the end, Russia would have the breadbasket of Europe under its thumb, and the entire western side of Ukraine would be radioactive and rendered as a buffer zone between NATO and Russian forces. This, in turn, would make it so that Russia wouldn't have to spend so many resources in securing the western Ukrainian border. The radiation would essentially do it for them. It's modern war's version of a barbed wire fence.
A Large Port with a Heavy Military Presence
This would be an excellent place for Russia to demonstrate the power of its Poseidon torpedo. All enemy troops in the area would be destroyed, and all NATO members with a coastline would be warned about engaging in any actions against Russian forces.
This author believes a Poseidon detonation is unlikely in Ukraine. Access to the Black Sea via Ukraine would do Russia too many favors for The Kremlin to likely be willing to render large parts of the Ukrainian coast radioactive. However, if a Poseidon was used, it would cause quite a bit of consternation if the Belgorod then appeared in the North Atlantic in the range of Great Britain or France.
A Non-NATO Nation that is Supporting Ukraine
To Russia, one of the pesky things about NATO is Article 5. This part of the NATO charter mandates that all NATO members offer military assistance to any attacked NATO member. So, if Great Britain, a NATO member, were nuked by Russia, Article 5 of the NATO charter would dictate that the entirety of NATO now wage overt war against Russia.
That's a lot of money and soldiers to have to fight against.
If what's being looked for is a means to use nukes as a political statement without worrying about invoking Article 5, Russia could potentially send a hypersonic missile against a non-NATO nation that is funneling arms and money into Ukraine.
Consider that Sweden is currently not a member of NATO, has recently been talking about joining, and is offering arms and money to Ukraine. NATO would be under no obligation to overtly declare war with conventional forces against Russia (World War 3), Russia would demonstrate its weapons' potential, and everybody around the globe that was assisting Ukraine would have second thoughts.
If Russia were to air burst a 100-kiloton tactical nuke on Stockholm, not only would this essentially paralyze the Swedish government, but it would likely cause Finland to quit thinking about joining NATO, would eliminate Sweden as a Ukrainian supply point, and all of the radioactive fallout should blow away from Russia and over Norway.
A Military Strongpoint
Maybe Russia just finds a region they are having difficulty taking. The salt mines of Bakhmut could be an example of this. As of this writing, Ukrainian forces are currently holed up deep within these salt mines in what many initially viewed as a pointless region to fight for. Given that there is a lot of Ukrainian material in these mines. Given their depth, there's a good chance they would serve as a nuclear blast shelter; Russia could potentially drive Ukrainian forces deep into these tunnels and then start dropping nukes in Ukraine.
The Soledar Salt Mine concert hall near Bakhmut. Image courtesy of A1jsmiller at Wikimedia Commons.
Then, a significant chunk of the Ukrainian military would be holed up underground for weeks due to the radiation, removing them, their ammunition, their vehicles, and their weapons from being used on the battlefield. The Ukrainian soldiers wouldn't be wiped out completely, but they would essentially be removed from being a presence for weeks. During that time, Russia could surround the area or penetrate into regions that the previous Ukrainian military presence prevented them from accessing.
Even if the Ukrainian troops only spent the Kearny recommendation of two weeks underground, a lot can happen in two weeks of war.
(This author doesn't believe Bakhmut will fall prey to a nuke due to the prizes inside the salt mines, but the point is that a Ukrainian military strongpoint could be a potential target.)
When the capital of any nation falls during a war, it serves as a massive blow to the enemy's psyche. It's an act of psychological warfare wrapped up in a conventional attack. Russia could potentially nuke Kiev simply to make a political statement.
This author doesn't believe this is likely because it is in the heart of where Russia wants to occupy. But it is a possibility.
Could Radioactive Fallout from Nukes in Ukraine Reach the United States?
To answer this question, one of the best things we can do is first look at how things played out with Chernobyl. It's estimated that the Chernobyl meltdown resulted in one billion plus curies of radiation being released into the atmosphere.
Abandoned apartment near Chernobyl.
While most of this radiation impacted Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, the only reason that the world found out about Chernobyl in the first place was that two days after the meltdown, Sweden began to report abnormally high levels of radiation.
It would later be said that virtually every country in the Northern Hemisphere detected excessive radiation directly due to Chernobyl, at least to some degree.
One 1988 study found increased radiation levels in both the rain and surface air particulates in Portland, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, in 1986. Of these radioactive isotopes, Iodine-131 was the most prevalent, though plenty of Cs and Ru isotopes were found as well (but surprisingly, no strontium). The study estimated that the highest calculated individual dose amongst this segment of the American population was 0.52 mSv and that there would be an additional three lung cancer deaths and four thyroid, breast, and leukemia deaths in the US population over the next 45 years as a direct result of increased radiation from May-June 1986.
How high was this radiation?
According to nuclear physicist Donald Hughes, Washington state's rain was 140x more radioactive than before the Chernobyl radiation arrived.
Another 1988 study, this time in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, found Chernobyl radiation as far away as New York. They estimated that a six-month-old baby still on milk would absorb 70 micro Grays of radiation, a relatively inconsequential amount.
So did radiation from Chernobyl reach the United States? Absolutely.
Was it consequential? From a population standpoint, no. (Of course, those seven extra Americans who died from cancer would beg to differ.)
When we use the past to interpret the future, however, we must be aware that there are bound to be variables.
With any nuclear weapon Russia uses in the near future, there is an excellent chance that it will be an air detonation for the reasons discussed above. Not only would this not create a lot of radioactive fallout, but the bulk of the fallout would fall on Europe. While we did see radiation reach the United States after the Fukushima meltdown in 2011, Japan is much closer to the United States than Ukraine, and distance matters when bringing radiation to an area. The" good" thing about an air detonation is that it means minimal radioactive fallout. While America would receive radiation, it wouldn't be as bad as a ground burst weapon.
What would happen if Russia used a surface detonation for a nuclear weapon? Would we see radiation reaching the United States, then? And what if Russia used multiple MIRV warheads, such as is the case with the new Sarmat missile?
As shown above, radiation would reach the United States one way or another no matter how many nukes in Ukraine (or Europe) are dropped. As long as just a single nuke is dropped in Ukraine, it's only a matter of time before radiation reaches the United States. It's the amount, though, that matters. There can be increases in background radiation that are statistically significant but that do not pose any severe health problems.
If there was a surface detonation or multiple MIRV warheads used, then you would absolutely see more radiation reach the United States than if there was an airburst or a single nuke. That's something of a non-statement, however. We want to know if that radiation would be dangerous to Americans.
This is where we begin to get into speculation.
Chernobyl radiation reached America, and the health consequences were insignificant on a population level. A nuke in Ukraine would likely have the same outcome. Of course, there are a lot of variables at play here.
Wind direction, wind speed, number of nukes, distance to the US, payload, type of bomb, detonation height – it all matters.
Again, if any reached America, it would likely be minimal. Suppose we use the speeds of the jetstreams that brought radiation from Fukushima to California. In that case, we estimate that at 50mph, it would take close to two weeks for radiation from Ukraine in the form of fallout to reach the United States.
According to nuclear war survival expert Cresson Kearny, two weeks is when one would want to shelter in a fallout shelter to survive lethal doses of radiation. After two weeks, a person can typically safely begin to exit their shelter for increasing periods.
We should be able to safely deduce from that if it's going to take two weeks for radioactive fallout to even reach the United States from Ukraine, the half-life of the radiation would have burned through a great bulk of its time, leaving the amount of radiation that would reach the United States to be minimal.
On the Beach-level radioactive clouds that instantly kill everyone are not something you need to worry about.
What Can You Do to Prepare for Nukes in Ukraine?
Let's say that we knew for certain that Russia would drop a nuke on Ukraine in six months. What could we do to prepare for the risk of radiation reaching the United States in the meantime?
Store plenty of food and water.
One of the main risks would be that food grown in the United States could be contaminated with small amounts of radioactive fallout. This would then result in people ingesting radioactive alpha and beta particles. This, in turn, could result in cancer or acute radiation sickness if the radiation levels were high enough.
The ability to eat solely pre-stocked food and pre-stocked water for a while after a nuke was dropped in Ukraine would be one of the best things somebody could do to protect themselves from Ukrainian fallout.
Growing your own food wouldn't necessarily be the best option here. Remember that post-Chernobyl 1988 studies found that the west coast of America was being showered with radioactive rain. This would mean that radiation was being put into gardens. As those studies showed, the radiation risk was minimal. Still, if a large nuke were used and ground-detonated – or a MIRV full of tactical nukes dropped all around western Ukraine – we could see quite a bit of radioactive fallout generated.
It's better to play it safe here.
Stock a full-face respirator and nuclear protective filters.
As pointed out from that 1988 study above post-Chernobyl, radiation resulted in three different lung cancer cases in the United States. Statistically significant? Not even close. But again, if we're concerned about how things could play out in the future, we have to consider the variables.
If you want to play it safe and not risk breathing in radioactive particles, you're going to need a full-face respirator and a nuclear protective filter.
This is where MIRA Safety can help you out. Our CM-6M gas mask combined with an NBC-77 filter is used by militaries and government organizations worldwide to help protect them against radioactive threats. This gear can help to protect you as well.
Learn How to Build a Fallout Shelter
The best protection against radioactive fallout is shelter. With enough time in a fallout shelter, a family can safely exit without fear of radiation poisoning. You only need to concern yourself with this if you think that high levels of radiation are likely to find their way to your home.
Is the Russian Nuclear Threat to Ukraine Valid?
The radiation consequences from a nuke dropped in Ukraine would likely pale compared to what would follow. If there was retaliation from NATO, then you could potentially be looking at the beginnings of World War 3 with everything that would entail. That would have a much more significant impact on American soil than the radiation from a nuclear weapon dropped on Ukrainian soil.
But those are just our takes on the subject.
What are yours? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Maybe. If that were the case, nukes would be dropped on American soil, and to discuss how to prepare for that requires a whole other article. We're mainly concerned with answering the question of how a nuke dropped in Ukraine would impact American soil.
Who knows? The case could be made that if nuclear weapons are aimed to send a message, one of sufficient power should suffice.
However, you also have to take size into the equation. Just how large is Ukraine? Big enough that a single nuke wouldn't be sufficient to take out the entire Ukrainian military. Because of this, some arguments could be made that multiple nukes are a possibility. However, this author thinks Russia would want to avoid contaminating its prize to that extent.
With just one nuke being dropped, there would be no nuclear winter.
While there's a lot of speculation about this, science points the way to nuclear winter being a myth. Nuclear war survival scientist Cresson Kearny denied its possibility, and though this is just a theory, he makes a strong case for it in Nuclear War Survival Skills.
Suppose we were talking of a nuclear Armageddon comprised of surface-detonated nukes across the globe. In that case, we could see massive amounts of dust kicked up into the atmosphere for a good period, but if we're talking about a low-yield, tactical nuke being dropped in Ukraine, there's zero chance of a nuclear winter.
No, to date, Russia has not used nuclear weapons in Ukraine. They're being deployed all around Ukraine but have not been used as of this writing.
No, Ukraine does not officially have its own nuclear weapons. They claim to have destroyed them after signing the 1994 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Ukraine alleges that it destroyed its nuclear weapons almost 30 years ago. Considering this, it isn't likely that you will see Ukraine itself use nuclear weapons against Russia. If NATO gifts nuclear weapons to Ukraine, things could be a different story, but a Ukrainian nuclear attack seems unlikely for the moment.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is likely the best to consult on this question. They regularly update the Doomsday Clock to determine the chances of a nuclear war. Currently, the clock is closer to "midnight" - an entire thermonuclear war - than ever before.
Russian nuclear weapons are capable of striking anywhere on the planet. The Sarmat-2 ICBM alone has a range that encompasses the globe. Consider that from Moscow, Russia, to Washington, DC, is about 4800 miles. The effective range of the Sarmat-2 missile is believed to be about 11,000 miles.
If a nuclear weapon is coming, the most essential thing you can do is seek shelter. If you are anywhere near Ground Zero, you are likely to disintegrate. Otherwise, you have a good chance of surviving the initial blast, provided you seek shelter. Physicians for Civil Defense state that ducking and covering away from windows is vital and that you should seek refuge in a basement or other underground shelter likely to survive the blast.
The creation of hypersonic missiles doesn't give one as much time to prepare as a Cold War ICBM launch would have, but that doesn't mean that any course of action is hopeless.
If Russia uses nukes in Ukraine, some believe a nuclear weapon will be used against Russia in retaliation. Europe will likely be hit with a refugee problem, the global economy will probably come to a standstill, and an open, conventional war between NATO and Russia is possible.
Ukraine does not officially have any nukes, so for the sake of argument, we'll assume that they have zero. Russia does have nuclear weapons and has moved a lot of equipment and personnel throughout the entire region. Exactly where these nukes are in Ukraine or how many are present is impossible.
Data on Russian or NATO nuclear weapons throughout the Black Sea is also almost impossible to ascertain.
In 2019, Russian state-sponsored TV listed The Pentagon, Camp David, Jim Creek, McClellan, and Fort Ritchie as potential targets of Russian hypersonic missiles. There could also be other targets within the United States, but these at least are some of the ones that Russia has openly discussed on American soil.
Russian TV has also discussed nuking London, Berlin, and Paris.
Is the US going to war with Russia? Overt, open war? This is hard to say, but we can say that if Russia nukes America, we would launch back, but millions in the US would die. There is a good chance it would be a concise war between the two nations; who would win is hard to say.